Design and standards: artistic versus cautionary tension #PhDprep

As I’ve tweeted recently, I now have confirmed funding for a full-time PhD at the University of Kent with the University of Lille starting in September. I’ve blogged before about the developing proposal which I started back in November 2019.

As things stand, the full title of the PhD proposal is The impact of building standards (professional, design and technical) on the development of early ‘modern’ architecture in Belgium, Northern France and linked European cities 1872-1914. But why this particular topic?

In part it derives from my 2019 book ‘Building Passions‘ which looked at the Brunel and Barry families of famous Victorian engineers and architects. I had tried to expand on 20 plus years of formal and informal research into the history of the built environment linked to these famous men and their iconic structures e.g. Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, the Thames Tunnel, Clifton Suspension Bridge etc.

In the book I examined the fraught relationship between the architecture and engineering professions in the 19th Century, as well as the development of new architectural styles influenced by the use of new construction materials, particularly iron, steel and plate glass. In a case study I looked at the use of iron in late 19th-century architecture and trace it from a unique iron and glass office block in 1860s Liverpool (still standing as Oriel Chambers). This might well be a precursor to the first Chicago skyscrapers of the 1880s and beyond. At the same time the enormous iron Eiffel Tower was completed for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris.

Then four years later the Belgian architect Victor Horta completed a unique townhouse design for a wealthy client-friend in Brussels. It still stands as Hotel Tassel and truly initiated what we now term ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture. Its roots can be traced back to the English Arts and Crafts domestic architecture movement begun with the Red House in 1860 and connected further in the past to Augustus Pugin’s ground-breaking gothic home ‘The Grange’ begun in 1840s Ramsgate.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tassel_House_stairway.jpg , marked as public domain. Hotel Tassel interior. Henry Townsend.

Later on in the book I mention the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 – it was a terrible example of building standards becoming outdated as new technology, in this case external insulation cladding, came more to the fore on tower blocks. These standards were originally introduced to protect Londoners from unscrupulous constructors. The city wouldn’t have burned (so badly) in 1666 if it’s house builders had actually followed building regulations about not using wood or had pushed back tightly-packed, overhanging gables. It was a disaster waiting to happen and as such has been repeated over time.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Grenfell_Tower_fire_%28wider_view%29.jpg . Grenfell Tower. Natalie Oxford

By contrast, complete aesthetic indulgence in building design can start off a whole chain reaction of artistic licence. Art Nouveau was disparaged as an urban style or movement in England because it was deemed over-decorative ‘foreignness’, unlike the ‘purer’ lines derived from the home-grown Arts and Craft approaches. Mackintosh in Glasgow sought a middle way, I may argue successfully. Others did the same elsewhere in Europe, notably Vienna.

This all makes interesting material for a PhD. The big problem will be to retain focus as much as possible – the only silver lining to the COVID-19 lockdown is that it may limit my access to original documents, so perhaps create a healthy tension of its own.

Who knows?

Facing adversity #buildingpassions

The world is facing a pandemic and many individuals are struggling with their daily lives as a result.

From a historical perspective, there is nothing new about adversity. My book ‘Building Passions‘ includes some examples in the past.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was almost killed in 1828 when the Thames Tunnel collapsed during construction and flooded the works nearly drowning him. He spent many months regaining his health after a serious injury to his leg. It was a frustrating time for him, but once he had recovered he went on to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, his first epic structure.

Augustus Welbin Pugin was a highly talented young designer who was used by Sir Charles Barry to create the beautiful Gothic-style decoration of the New Palace of Westminster. His health suffered fatally from the exertions he placed on himself to meet deadlines for his many demanding clients. Charles Barry followed him for the same reasons, though considerably older, in 1860.

In 1879 a train crossed the Tay Bridge in Scotland in the middle of a huge storm. Unknown to the passengers, the iron structure supporting the track had undergone immense stress due to the wind and waves. Suddenly, the bridge collapsed causing the engine and coaches to fall into the estuary. Many lives were lost and the famous bridge engineer never recovered from the damage to his reputation – more positively, the resulting inquest led to sturdier bridge-building, exemplified by the vast steel structure of the Forth Rail Bridge also in Scotland. Sir William Arrol supplied the improved version of iron for that project, as well as for Tower Bridge in London, completed four years later.

Dulwich College #10favstructures #buildingpassions

Dulwich College is an independent school in South London, England.

It is best known for producing Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic Explorer, and PG Wodehouse, the writer of the amusing Jeeves the Butler series.

More recently, it has been in the news for educating Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party in the UK. It isn’t known for schooling me, but yes, I did go to it for almost four years in total, split between two stays.

Why, you might reasonably ask, is it on my list of 10 favourite structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘? The answer is simple: I love it as a building complex, and it was designed by Charles Barry junior in the 19th Century.

The structure was an Italianate homage to the Houses of Parliament, designed and built by his father Sir Charles Barry, with assistance from his other son Edward Middleton Barry, as well as the famous Gothic Revival designer Augustus Welbin Pugin.

I particularly like the beautiful Great Hall with its hammerbeam roof also reminiscent of medieval Westminster Hall, now the main entrance route to Parliament for the public.

Sadly, I didn’t appreciate the architecture while at the school – at least I’ve finally come round.

Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture eBook by Nick von Behr – 9781916225701 | Rakuten Kobo

The book cover image above should always be credited as follows: Arpingstone (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tower.bridge.7.basculecloseup.london.arp.jpg), size and alignment by Elisa Vernazza, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/legalcode

The e-book is currently available to order at https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/brunel-barry-and-modern-victorian-architecture

18 days, 125 years #buildingpassions

The last time I ran a countdown on this website was for the 100th anniversary of John Wolfe Barry’s death in January 2018.

This one is for the 125th anniversary of the first opening of Tower Bridge to the London public on 30 June, only eighteen days away.

I was hoping to publish my forthcoming book about JWB, his family and close friend Henry Brunel, son of IKB, by now. It will happen by the end of September latest.

The good news is that I have had more time to adjust my text to address a broader readership and write more about the famous Brunel family. While the Barrys rightly got the credit for Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, they couldn’t have achieved this without the legacy and contribution of others.

In addition to the Brunels the book covers Augustus Pugin and a little on his father, from whom he inherited his incredible gothic drawing talents. It also looks at William Arrol’s contribution to the building of Tower Bridge and the more structurally impressive Forth Railway Bridge.

Which shows that there are stories behind stories behind stories. Meeting recently with former work colleagues, providing the ‘back story’ to key issues was one area we felt had been part of our career learning.

The trick is to find the key stories, dig up enough relevant detail and communicate this to your intended audiences.

How (not) to review (parts of) a book you refuse to reach

This is new for me but I needed to blog about a book I refuse to read. The title and image refers to a famous ad about a beer ‘refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach’,

Let’s imagine that a well-known politician has just launched a book about a dozen characters from Victorian Britain. For context, the politician has right of centre views and is identified with his passionate arguments for a ‘No Deal Brexit’. It is possible that he may have a biased approach to history?

Coincidentally, two of the characters he includes in his book feature in my forthcoming publication, though not as prominently in my case.

One of these is Queen Victoria, about whom much has been written and put on our screens of late. Difficult to be objective possibly?

The other of more immediate interest to me is the architect and designer Augustus Pugin. My book will look closely at his working relationship with Sir Charles Barry in the building of the New Palace of Westminster. Others have already researched and written about this, and a new, long-awaited biography of Barry may eventually appear by the end of this year.

Not wanting to give away my conclusions before publication, let’s just say that I attempt to provide a balanced view between the two extremes presented by Pugin’s and Barry’s sons in the later 19th Century after their fathers had died. One end of the scale suggests Pugin should get all the credit for this iconic structure, the other end goes for Barry. Somewhere in the middle seems more sensible, but like politics that doesn’t always prevail.

Hence my keenness not to read where Mr X stands on things, if indeed this is mentioned at all …

Some last minute picture research

We were on a mini road trip of parts of England for a few days. More than 1000 miles clocked up at least.

We dropped in on a Barry and Banks Jacobethan manor hall in Norfolk and a Nash Italianate villa built in Shropshire in 1802. We also saw Gothic Ilam Park in the Peak District and the amazing St Giles Roman Catholic Church in Cheadle by Pugin.

In between we admired the beautiful Lake District countryside where Wordsworth, Ruskin and Beatrix Potter all lived.

For me it was a reaffirmation of the treasures that can be found in my home country. Some of these I will write about in my forthcoming book. More importantly I will be able to include current day images of them.

You will have to wait until publication to see these, so in the meantime I have included a classic Lake District scene for you to contemplate – who knows it may inspire you to go there?

On the trail of the Barrys

By Barrys I don’t mean Barry Manilow or Barry from Eastenders.

I do mean Sir Charles Barry and his sons Charles junior, Edward and John. They are the main characters in the joint biography I am writing of an atypical Victorian family.

Most of us associate the Victorian period with scenes from a Charles Dickens novel or with Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert. For me it is inextricably linked to architecture (we live in a Victorian house even though it was built a few years after the Empress died) as well as the industrial and commercial expansion of the British Empire culminating in the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the magnificent Crystal Palace.

That last structure brings together a few strands in the developing book. Sir Charles Barry sat on the planning committee for it together with Prince Albert and IK Brunel. His close collaborator on the New Palace of Westminster, Augustus Pugin, created an amazing display of medieval crafts which typified the Gothic Revival style he defended so vociferously against Greek classicists.

Once the Great Exhibition finished it was decided to move the whole structure to Sydenham Hill outside London, though now in a suburb in the capital aptly called Crystal Palace. To allow access to it a new high level railway station was built at the top of the hill to reduce the walk for visitors. There is some dispute whether Charles Barry junior or his brother Edward Middleton Barry was responsible for this structure since demolished, but certainly the subway from the station to the site of the palace is still accessible with its amazing vaulting and decoration.

Charles Barry junior did build the splendid new Dulwich College in the 1860s just down the hill from the Crystal Palace and shown in the above photo. I went to school there but never realised its architectural significance or link to the Barry family. Not even my best friend Barry knew this. If he actually existed that is ….

Architectural styles and communities (part 3)

In the previous post in this series I referred to a unique office building in Liverpool, England completed in 1864 and how it had influenced architectural thinking about high rise buildings in late 19th Century America.

This post is about the architect Victor Horta.

I knew little about him until recently, when I began researching the origins of Art Nouveau as a revolutionary architectural style which flourished across the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. This connects with investigations related to Augustus Pugin, as well as into the relationship between architectural aesthetics and engineering form, some of which is recorded on this website about the civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry.

Horta appears to me to have been a remarkable man. But he was also a reflection of the time and place he lived. Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861, he eventually moved to Brussels, the Belgian capital, where his unique approach to architecture struck a chord with key members of the city community. One particular building stands out for me and many others who have like me appreciated his efforts. This is the Hotel Tassel.

It was to be the home of a professor of geometry who was a Freemason like Horta. It seems the architect was given complete artistic licence. But he approached this, as Morris and Webb had done with their ground-breaking Red House in England, with a philosophical bent which captured the full expression of his talent in design and the detailed application of materials and techniques.

My new project will look at how this created vision still reverberates within the community that is Brussels.

The final post in this series.

Architectural styles and communities (part 2)

This follows on from my previous blog in the series.

In that I outlined my interest in a project looking at the Secessionist style of architecture and its impact on local communities. I explained the connection to Sir John Wolfe Barry through his father the architect Charles Barry, who worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the New Palace of Westminster.

In the next blogs I will expand on the development of the Secessionist from the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement in England and the link to a wider style of nascent modern architecture that hit a number of major European and US cities at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Were local communities really involved with these changes? Clearly certain key representatives would have been, but nothing like the levels of consultation we are supposed to have in the present day democratic structures of these cities. Society was different and change could only happen if endorsed by those with influence. New construction materials and techniques were arriving on the scene through developments in steel and concrete. There was risk involved in using them, so someone had to be prepared to stick their head above the parapet and answer to the public acclaim or shame involved. Human lives were less valuable then.

One pivotal moment for me which followed the completion of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Red House in quiet Bexleyheath, England mentioned in the previous blog, was the building of Oriel Chambers in the heart of the busy City of Liverpool a few year later in 1864. Unappreciated at the time it has since been recognised as a unique early modern inhabitable structure using an iron frame and glass panels, originally the preserve of greenhouses and exhibition spaces such as the Kew Palm House and the Crystal Palace. In deed the building continues to be used as office space more than 150 years later!

Many suggest that this building inspired the architects of the Chicago School to create the first steel and glass skyscrapers in the late 19th Century, which were to become so commonplace globally and are still being constructed to this day, with the use of concrete rather than brick support. One of their number was Louis Sullivan who in turn worked with his protege Frank Lloyd-Wright before they fell out. Lloyd-Wright turned Sullivan’s phrase ‘form follows function’ into ‘form is function’. He himself coined the term ‘organic architecture’ to show the close connection between structures and their natural environment.

The third post in this series.